Rahm Emanuel on Chicago, U.S. economy

Jeremy Hobson Apr 2, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: What does $7 billion buy these days? Well, Rahm Emanuel — the former White House chief of staff and now Mayor of Chicago — hopes it’ll buy a total makeover for his city. That includes a new runway at O’Hare Airport, upgrades to rail and bus service, and a rebuilding of the city’s water and sewer system. Some of the $7 billion will come from new fees, some from cost savings, and some from a new public-private infrastructure bank.

For more, let’s bring in the Mayor Himself. Good morning.

Rahm Emanuel: Good morning, how are you?

Hobson: I’m doing well. Tell us about your grand, $7 billion plan.

Emanuel: It’s 30,000 jobs in the next three years. And as I like to say, whether it’s from the street lights above or to the sewage lines below, and everything in between, we’re literally going to build a new Chicago. All paid for — but none of it includes a sales tax increase or a property tax increase.

Hobson: And some of it is this idea of a public/private partnership, and I want to ask you about that because I think a lot of people who live in Chicago, when they hear that, they’re going to think of the famous deal with the parking meters —

Emanuel: You think?

Hobson: — and privatizing the parking meters, and now the city doesn’t get any money from them.

Emanuel: No, well, here’s the difference: Some of the facilities — the cultural center, it’s 100 years old — when we’re done, we’re going to save about $30,000 a year in energy costs. But we still own the cultural center. We’re not privatizing it, we’re just literally using private money to build out the energy efficiency.

There’s about $1 million worth of energy savings work to be done that will pay out $100,000 a year in savings of energy costs. But on the very day I announced it, to create these 30,000 infrastructure jobs, Washington passed their ninth extension of the transportation bill.

Hobson: Yeah.

Emanuel: The last real one was 2005. Who would ever tie their city’s economic destiny to that dysfunction?

Hobson: Well, when you look at your vision for the future of Chicago — I mean, I think back to your predecessor, Mayor Daley, and his wife, Maggie Daley, heading off to Paris and seeing flowers everywhere; and then coming back and putting flowers all over the city of Chicago. Where do you look for inspiration?

Emanuel: You learn a lot from all different types of mayors who are doing different things. Literally some of the retro fit we’re doing is an idea that your mayor in L.A. gave me, and the mayor of Vancouver gave me. All of us learn from each other.

One of our selling points is it’s very convenient to live in a city and get to work, because of our mass transit system. But if my mass transit system is not working at top speed, that advantage gets lost. And I won’t let that happen.

Hobson: Well one of the disadvantages of your city right now, it appears to be, is that it’s got a reputation — the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago — for being a high tax place to do business. Is that hurting you right now?

Emanuel: As you know, in my budget, we did not raise any taxes; in fact, we cut them. And here’s my view: having a smart and educated work force matters; having a modern infrastructure matters. Does tax matter? Yes. But if everybody leaves in the economic development discussion, a trained and educated work force out of the discussion, you’re not having a real discussion.

If you’re not having a discussion that includes whether you have a modern airport that allows you to get anywhere in the world directly or anywhere in the country directly, you’re not really having a serious discussion about economic development. So my view is, taxes are part of the discussion, not the discussion.

Hobson: You spent a lot of your time as White House chief of staff getting the health care overhaul passed. If the Supreme Court strikes it down, what do you think is the next step for health care reform?

Emanuel: I appreciate the question. First of all, I’m going to focus on Chicago. Second of all, I don’t deal in “what ifs.” So, the court will make the ruling, and then we’ll deal with what that is.

But the president made a decision in America’s interests — both economic and social and fiscal priority. It was the right thing to do, and he saw it through and accomplished something the country had been debating for a long time. But as it relates to how the court’s going to rule, I don’t deal in hypotheticals until they will make it a reality.

Hobson: Rahm Emanuel is the mayor of Chicago. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Emanuel: Thanks for taking the time.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.